By Jill Goldberg
My mother died last month.
Seventeen years ago, after my first son was born, I broke off all contact. At any moment in time during the past seventeen years when I felt the longing for a mother, I reminded myself that I wasn’t actually missing my mother. I wasn’t missing what I once had; I was missing and wanting what I never had. And I knew that even if I’d remained and accepted the endless, degrading, shameful abuse from him, and the lack of affection and protection from her, I would still never have what I wanted. Not only would I never be safe, I would never be able to raise children who respected their mother or understood what a family should be. The cycle of violence had to be broken.
I was angry and hurt and disappointed in my mother, but I wasn’t trying to actively punish her. I just wanted out. Ever since I could remember, I’d been counting down the years until I could leave forever. But still, she was my mother. She had never been healthy, and I did want to know if she was still alive as time passed. I tried to maintain minimal contact with a few relatives who would keep me informed, but gradually I realized it was not going to work. It had to be all or nothing. Either no contact at all with any relatives, or full contact, because they didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, and couldn’t understand, the reasons behind my decision. In order to protect myself, and to protect my growing family, the choice had to be nothing instead of all.
And really, I repeatedly told myself, my mother was useless, helpless, a victim and a fool. She’d married my father and even after she knew his true nature, she never left. By staying, she allowed herself to be abused and she watched him abuse her children. I was open about my lack of respect for her. She had never served any purpose for me except to be a living example of everything that I never wanted for myself, a person I never wanted to be. I was different. I was better than my roots, better than my mother.
But what if my perception, my interpretation of my life history has been patently wrong? What if it is possible to reframe everything so that my mother is a heroine?
What if instead of seeing her indifference to me as overt preference for my brother, what if she saw from the outset that I was stronger and he was weaker? What if she really was doing the best that she could possibly do, and she truly believed in her heart that she needed to give him more in order to protect him? She once said as much to me, and I dismissed it as evidence of her inherent lack of love for me. What if she knew, through instincts only a mother has, that in the end I would not only survive, but I would actually thrive?
What if there really was no way for her to escape? What if there were no resources for her? No way for her to support herself? No way to divorce and have custody? He told her this, and I always believed it to be wrong, but what if it was true? In the early seventies, there were no shelters for battered women where we lived, if anywhere. She wouldn’t have been able to get a job since she had no college education, no work skills, no car, absolutely no money of her own. She wouldn’t have been able to open a bank account or get a credit card in her name.
She was isolated from her extended family, thousands of miles away from her own mother. Of course her abuser removed her from her only support system. What if she decided that the best way to save her children was to do everything possible to create a semblance, a glimpse, just a wisp of what a real family could be? What if she tried to do this by sharing the stories of her childhood and her parents and her siblings, her cousins and aunts and uncles, so I would know what family means? What if she did this by baking cookies with me so often, even when he threw them across the room, in order to give me sweet memories to hold onto? What if she strengthened me by reading with me whenever she could to enable me to read independently and learn about the world outside of my own life? What if she knew that by reading, I would understand that the life we were living was not as it should be?
What if she wasn’t really as weak and stupid as I thought? What if, in fact, even in her compromised state of being severely abused and witnessing her children being severely, endlessly abused, what if she was actually being strategic? And what if it was not only the best she could do at the time, but the best possible thing to have ever done? And what if it was not only good enough, but actually amazing and inspirational?
What if I am not damaged, but whole and strong and powerful because of my mother? What if the aspects of myself that I value are character traits I gained from her, and behaviors I learned from her, not in spite of her, as I’ve always believed?
I knew that I might never learn of her death, I knew that was the price I would need to pay, a consequence that I had to accept in exchange for my freedom. I didn’t know how I would react if and when I did learn of her death. I thought I’d feel sad, but I couldn’t imagine feeling more than that. And yet, now, I do feel more than that, so much more. My grief is intense, incapacitating, and all consuming. The inevitable cost of saving my life and protecting my children was to cruelly inflict pain upon another, my mother. I am overcome with guilt. I caused deep sorrow in a woman whose life was already filled with pain. I should have been a source of joy, but instead I was yet another source of heartache.
Through my grief, I finally understand the truth. My mother was strong, subversive, intelligent, inspiring, and heroic. My mother was, and always will be, worthy of deep respect. By reframing the struggle, pain becomes strength. I’ve lost my mother, and I miss her beyond words. I am, finally, at last, so proud to be her daughter, to tell her story, and to continue her legacy of strength and survival.
Jill Goldberg is an elementary school English teacher in a suburban public school district. This is her twenty-fourth year of teaching. Jill’s work has been published in Mothering, Natural Jewish Parenting, Parenting from the Heart, and Breastfeeding.com. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and three sons.